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Published: January 5th 2006
Though Amman, Jordan is about 45 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies, and would normally only be an hour-long bus ride on a highway, this ignores the fact that between the two cities lies one of the most disputed pieces of land in the world. Consequently, getting from Amman to Jerusalem can be a time-consuming and patience-testing process.
The first step was to get out of Amman, and this was easily accomplished by catching a bus at Abdali station that went to the Jordanian side of the border. There were only four of us on the bus: a driver, a Bedouin ticket-taker, a Jordanian man, and me, all of us bunched up at the front, with 30 rows of empty seats behind us. The bus wound through hilly, rocky terrain, going downhill almost the entire way into the valley below. The weather alternated between dense fog and brilliant sunshine, and the travel from the day before began to catch up with me, and I started to doze off...
I was jarred awake as the bus hit an oil slick on the road and skidded to one side. The driver overcorrected, and the bus skidded in the opposite direction, lurching sickeningly towards the edge of the road and a several-hundred-foot dropoff into the valley below. The Bedouin calmly tried to steady the driver, saying something I couldn't catch. This time the driver brought the bus under control. We all looked at each other and took some deep breaths. The Bedouin radioed back to the bus office: "Oil on the road... what? No, we're all fine, al hamdu-lillah ." Then he somewhat shakily handed out cigarettes all around.
This was the one time on my trip where I felt my life was in real danger (okay, maybe a few times while crossing the streets in Cairo as well), and it was a relief to reach our destination at the Jordanian border crossing.
The Israeli passport stamp predicament
I chose to enter Jerusalem from Jordan rather than Israel because it is easier to avoid getting an Israeli stamp in your passport. Several Arab countries do not recognize Israel, and if you have any evidence of a visit to the "Zionist entity" in your passport, you will be denied entry, end of story. Since I would like to visit several of these Arab countries in the future, I decided to try my luck by crossing from Jordan and hopefully avoiding the stamp(s).
Not just any Jordanian border crossing will do though. The King Hussein Bridge (Jordan) / Allenby Terminal (Israel) border crossing is the only place where the Jordanians will not stamp your passport upon exiting the country (it's not enough just to avoid the Israeli stamp, since a Jordanian exit stamp on a land border with Israel is just as incriminating). Even though Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel and recognizes its existence, in an interesting case of self-delusion, the Jordanians do not consider you to be leaving Jordan if you go through this crossing (conveniently though, they still charge a $15 departure tax).
Jordanian customs and immigration were a breeze, and soon I was herded onto another bus with some other foreigners for the short ride across the border. The actual King Hussein Bridge is pathetically short, and the Jordan River, which it spans, is pathetically small. Blink and you'll miss it. Apparently irrigation and damming further upstream have reduced the once powerful Jordan River to a trickle.
Not in Kansas anymore
Once across the bridge, it was clear I wasn't in Jordan. The signs were in Hebrew, the Star of David flag flew overhead, and the soldiers carried M-16s instead of AK-47s (the weapon of choice in most Arab countries). After several checkpoints, where we were herded off of the bus, our passports checked, and the bus searched for explosives, we finally arrived at Allenby terminal to go through Israeli customs and immigration. It was controlled chaos as foreigners and Palestinians poured off buses and hauled their luggage to get checked in. Israelis wearing body armor and standing behind metal barriers took our luggage to x-ray it, saying it would be returned after we had cleared passport control.
After going through a few more security checks, I finally made it into the passport control area, which was another zoo. I waited forever to get to the front of the line, and when I did, some Israeli official kept jumping in and throwing diplomatic passports on the counter, saying to the woman behind the desk (who couldn't have been older than 25), "Handle these first!" Damn diplomats.
Finally she took my passport and papers, and the legendary Israeli grilling began, though she wasn't unpleasant to me at all (in contrast to some Palestinians who had gone before me, who didn't receive the kindest of interrogations). I decided this was the time to turn on the charm, smiling a lot and joking with her a bit. She went through every stamp in my passport, remarking "you travel a lot" and asking all kinds of questions about where I was staying, did I know any Palestinians, and so on. I played the Christian-visiting-the-Holy-Land-for-Christmas card (which was true) in the hope it would make me appear even more innocuous. Surprisingly, when she got to my Egyptian passport stamps, she didn't ask anything. I then made the request "Please do not stamp my passport" which of course opened up another line of investigation for her. "Why?" she asked. "I would like to visit Lebanon someday," I said. She considered this for a moment, said "okay," stamped a separate entry/exit slip, and that was it. I was in.
On to Jerusalem
X-rayed luggage was strewn all over the terminal, and I finally found my backpack among the mounds of luggage and headed out to the taxis. A private taxi all the way to Jerusalem was $60. Luckily I found a shared taxi to Jerusalem with a bunch of Palestinians for significantly less than that. I found myself sitting in the van next to a Palestinian man in his 30s who spoke pretty good English. We started chatting in Arabic, and he spoke Modern Standard Arabic for my benefit. I could understand almost every word. Then he spoke dialect, and I quickly became lost. Back to MSA.
He was a gregarious fellow, and began speaking about life as a Palestinian. Though born and raised in Jerusalem, and living there most of his life, he could not go to Bethlehem, which was less than 5 miles away -- the Israeli army wouldn't allow it. And he didn't just face hassles from the Israelis: he had a Jordanian passport that marked him as Palestinian, so as a result it was hard for him to get foreign visas for pretty much anywhere. "I can't even get a visa for Egypt," he said. As for living under Israeli occupation, he said, "What can I do? I resist as I can. My family is here. My friends are here. This is my home; I will never leave home." Like many Palestinians, he had relatives living abroad; his brother was in Chicago studying statistics, and he had a sister living abroad as well.
He was a pretty jovial guy all in all, and gave a running commentary as we drove on the way to Jerusalem: here is the Dead Sea, here is Jericho, and so on. One thing he didn't point out though: row upon row of modern-looking, suburban cookie-cutter houses. I had a suspicion, but I had to ask. "Is that an Israeli settlement?" His face clouded over briefly. "Yes, that is the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank." (The Maale Abumim settlement; see this story on NPR
Suddenly the Jerusalem skyline came into view, with the golden Dome of the Rock gleaming in the sun. A completely unexpected rush of emotion came over me. My eyes teared up, and with my voice breaking I said to my Palestinian companion, "I can't believe I'm actually seeing it." He smiled and said, "Ah, now don't get Jerusalem Syndrome. Some people see all of these religious sites and go a little crazy. We have two Australian guys that walk around town now thinking they're Jesus." That helped bring me back down to earth.
A short time later we arrived at Damascus Gate, on the north side of Jerusalem's Old City. The entire trip from Amman to Jerusalem, a distance of 45 miles, had taken about 5 hours. Other travelers told me later that this wasn't bad; sometimes it took almost a whole day to get across (or couldn't get across at all, when the Israeli army closed the border).
The next day was December 24th. I was determined to get to Bethlehem for the Christmas festivities.
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